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Grupo Corpo brings two startlingly different works to BAM
Keeping a modern dance company alive and thriving for more than four decades is quite a feat -- especially in a city that isn't exactly an internationally renowned cultural center. Based in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 200 miles north of Rio de Janeiro, Grupo Corpo was founded in 1975 by a group of family members and friends who wanted to create opportunities to dance in their hometown.
Since the late 1980s, Rodrigo Pederneiras has been the company's sole choreographer while his brother, Paulo, serves as artistic director and often designs the sets and lighting. Over the decades, Grupo Corpo (which translates to Group Body) has become one of Brazil's leading modern dance troupes, with a busy touring schedule that takes its members all over the globe.
The company made its New York City debut in 1990 at the Joyce, but since 2002 BAM has been its Big Apple home base. That's where Grupo Corpo returns next week after a seven-year hiatus, with two pieces from its expansive repertoire, one brand-new, the other a classic.
"They are the apex of Brazilian contemporary dance," says Joseph V. Melillo, BAM's longtime executive producer who programmed this season before stepping down last month. "They have created a new generation of art makers in dance. It was not their intent, but longevity has given them an insight into the need to assist the next generation of artists."
Usually the 20-plus-member company brings its latest creations to NYC, but this time Rodrigo decided to pair his 20-plus-year-old Bach with his most recent work, Gira.
For Gira, Paulo commissioned the São Paulo-based punk-jazz-rock band Metá Metá to collaborate with Rodrigo. The musicians suggested exploring the ideas and rituals of Umbanda, an Afro-Brazilian religion that combines traditions and beliefs from multiple faiths. With the seed planted, Rodrigo embarked on a research project. "I knew nothing about Umbanda before I began to create Gira," the choreographer admits. "I started to go to the rituals every day for three months to learn the manifestations of the spirit. These are very particular and very different from other religions, although Umbanda is related to Candomblé, but that one is very African, while Umbanda is very Brazilian."
Buoyed by Metá Metá's richly textured and propulsive score, the 42-minute Gira does not recreate any specific Umbanda practices. Instead, it incorporates a selection of gestures and movements that Rodrigo observed while learning about the religion. The performers, all sporting flowing white skirts, bare torsos and necks painted red, move with an invigorating momentum that suggests being in a spiritual thrall.
In contrast, Bach is a 1996 work in which the dancers cavort with sporty playfulness beneath -- and sometimes hanging from -- a canopy of shiny metal tubes. Rodrigo describes it as "a reverence to Johann Sebastian Bach," with composer Marco Antônio Guimarães interweaving famous melodies by the Baroque master into his modern score. Described on Grupo Corpo's website as "a game between what one hears and sees," Bach dates from a period when Rodrigo's choreography had a neoclassical bent, reflecting his own ballet background. "After that time, I started to change our style a lot," he says, noting the tremendous influence popular Brazilian dances now have on his work.
"Rodrigo is a fascinating artist," says Melillo, who was captivated when he first saw these two works juxtaposed in 2017. "He goes from the formalism of Bach to the primitivism of Gira -- intellectual rigor against human sensual behavior. I believe that if you cast your eyes over all of Rodrigo's work, it is the amalgam of sensuous investigation and the pursuit of pure form."
Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.
Top image: Grupo Corpo in Bach. Photos by Jose Luiz Pederneiras.
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